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Equal Justice Initiative Announces Memorial Honoring Lynching Victims

As featured in the New York Times on August 15, 2016.

Written by Campbell Robertson

 

One day in October 1910, a mob of white people in Montgomery, Ala., tried to seize and lynch several black men who were being held in a downtown jail on suspicion of interracial sexual relations.

Unsuccessful, the angry mob found a black man named John Dell sitting nearby in the taxi cab he drove. They shot him dead. No one was prosecuted, and Mr. Dell, as with roughly a dozen other lynching victims in the city’s history, was essentially unacknowledged.

Next year, not far from the site of Mr. Dell’s death, one of the first — and certainly the largest — memorials to the victims of the thousands of racial lynchings in United States history is scheduled to open.

The Equal Justice Initiative, a legal rights organization in Montgomery, is to formally announce the plans on Tuesday.

The group will also unveil plans for a museum to open in April, in its roughly 11,000-square-foot headquarters, that will trace the country’s racial history from slavery to the era of mass incarceration.

The memorial will sit on six acres, the highest spot in the first capital of the Confederacy, on the site of what used to be a public housing complex.

“Our goal isn’t to be divisive,” said Bryan Stevenson, the director of the Equal Justice Initiative. “Our goal is just to get people to confront the truth of our past with some more courage.”

The museum and memorial project, for which Mr. Stevenson said he had raised about 40 percent of a projected $20 million, is the latest and most ambitious undertaking in a continuing effort by Mr. Stevenson to change public awareness of the nation’s racial history.

Contributors to the project include the Ford Foundation and Google.

Designed in partnership with MASS, a Boston-based design group, the memorial will be made up of two parts.

One is a large, four-sided gallery of 801 suspended six-foot columns, representing a county where a lynching took place and etched with the name of the person or people lynched — a term not limited to hangings.

Duplicates of those columns will be placed in an adjacent field.

People will be encouraged to retrieve the columns in the field and place them as markers in their home counties.

The aim, he said, mentioning the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, is to be forthright about the horrors that were part of the nation’s racial history and their continuity from slavery through Jim Crow to the present day.

Three years ago, his group erected markers in Montgomery describing the city’s past as a major slave market. The move was met with some local resistance despite the city’s profusion of historical markers concerning the Confederacy and the civil rights movement.

Last year, the group released a report documenting more than 4,000 lynchings between 1877 and 1950.

After that report, Mr. Stevenson launched a project to collect soil from unmarked lynching sites around the country. The soil will be placed in glass jars that will be on display at the museum.

This project has the city of Montgomery’s support, said Mayor Todd Strange, though he acknowledged the hesitation of some residents to embrace the idea of a major downtown memorial to lynching.

“I’m sure that there will be some people that will say, ‘Why?’” he said in a phone interview.

“But from our standpoint, the ‘why’ is to tell the story, and to tell it in a fashion that people want to come and see it. And spend money when they come to town.”

The museum, called “From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration,” will be in the headquarters of the Equal Justice Initiative, a site in downtown Montgomery that was once a slave warehouse.

Mr. Stevenson said the museum would have databases for historical research and virtual reality stations so people could begin to understand what it was like to be in the cargo hold of a slave trafficking ship, to endure angry taunts during a lunch counter sit-in and to sit, in the present day, in an overcrowded prison.

Photograph by Ryan Pfluger for the New Yorker

Equal Justice Initiative Transforming Narrative on Race

The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a Montgomery based legal rights organization, is led by the extraordinary vision of its founder and executive director, Bryan Stevenson. Alongside their work on the death penalty, juvenile sentencing and mass incarceration, they are bringing national attention to the legacy of slavery and lynching and their connection to America’s contemporary struggle for racial equality.

Our society applies a presumption of dangerousness and guilt to young black men, and that’s what leads to wrongful arrests and wrongful convictions and wrongful death sentences, not just wrongful shootings. There’s no question that we have a long history of seeing people through this lens of racial difference. It’s a direct line from slavery to the treatment of black suspects today, and we need to acknowledge the shamefulness of that history.”   –Bryan Stevenson

 

Check out the New Yorker profile (“The Legacy of Lynching, On Death Row”) on Bryan in its August 22, 2016 issue to learn more about his legal and racial justice work.

 

 

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